No shame in earning silver

In 2010, the Honda CBR1000RR fell from grace as our Superbike Smackdown champion, knocked from its perch by the omnipotent BMW S1000RR. Even so, it had a three-year run as the best street superbike available. Not one to take finishing second to any manufacturer lightly, Honda gave the $13,800 base model 2012 CBR a serious reworking in order to recapture the crown. The big question is whether or not the amount of work done on the former class champ is enough to match the Bavarian brute or the fresh blood of the Panigale.

The list of updates on the 2012 Honda CBR1000RR is not long. In fact, you can count all of them on one hand, but that doesn’t mean they are not significant. Honda wrapped the CBR in more aerodynamic bodywork, gave it new 12-spoke wheels, worked up a fresh suspension, installed a flashy digital dash and, last but not least, reworked the ECU settings. Honda is historically very calculated with its changes, and although we were disappointed to not see an all-new CBR, we have to admit this bike is good. But we can still bitch about one thing that remains absent from the Honda’s bag of tricks: no traction control. Big Red is so confident about the new suspension and ECU setting that it feels the CBR doesn’t need an electronic babysitter to be competitive.

Power output from the CBR has always felt strong thanks to a fairly low curb weight. It has never been described as overbearing or uncontrollable, and the trend continues with the 2012 model. The bottom- to mid-range punch is there but easier to handle as the throttle response is smoother in tight corners and when initiating small throttle inputs. More aggressive riders might like to have a little more power down low, but for most riders, the tradeoff for the smoothness is acceptable. The buzzword often associated with the Honda powerplant is “user-friendly,” but the downside to that user-friendliness is that it takes something away from the visceral feel of the bike, leaving the Honda in last place in the engine character category.

“The engine in the Honda works great – the bottom end is a little soft, which will be appreciated by novice riders,” muses our resident speed freak Adam Waheed. “Stay on the throttle, though, and you’ll be surprised by just how much mid-range it cranks out. Only problem is that it’s so smooth and refined that it doesn’t offer a whole lot of wow factor. It’s more utilitarian in its feel and power delivery – which is great if say you’re logging 10,000 miles a year. But for a bike I want to play around on, it needs to have more 'oomph' and excite me some more.”

Despite the powerplant getting the lowest marks for character, it rated well in the subjective engine power, but on the dyno the numbers weren’t as impressive. The CBR1000RR ranked in the lower half of the field with 151.28 horsepower, but the torque was the highest from all the Inline Fours, including the mighty BMW, with 77.25 lb-ft. That mid-range torque is a signature ingredient in the CBR recipe for success on the street. Honda has always made streetbikes first, and this is where they continue to shine. While the power was middle of the charts, the fuel economy was not. For 2012 the CBR1000RR took top honors in fuel economy with a 36.56 mpg average. That also gives the CBR the longest range in the test at 171 miles from its 4.7-gallon tank.

At the drag strip, the 448-pound CBR fared well in the quarter-mile and 0-60 times too, despite have horsepower figures near the bottom of the pack. Blasting down our real world piece of pavement, the Honda flew through the trap with a time of 10.98 seconds at 141 mph and accelerated to 60 mph in a runner-up time of 3.597 seconds. This surprising performance can be attributed to the silky smooth power delivery and positive feel from the clutch, but it also has plenty to do with the Honda being the third-lightest machine in this test.

The rest of the drivetrain was just as affable as the clutch, coming in second behind the German-engineered BMW on the subjective scoresheets. Our test riders lauded it for perfectly spaced gearing and crisp shifting that never once let us down. It was exactly what you would expect from Honda in regards to a no-fuss user interface and riding experience.

“The CBR’s transmission is really even and ready to hit the streets out of the box,” says our lady stunter and all-round ripper Leah Petersen. “Each gear felt even and appropriate for street riding.”

Our guest Monster Energy rider Ernie Vigil concurs with Leah’s appraisal: “Simplicity again proves that it doesn’t take a bunch of gadgets to make a sound bike. Typical Honda smoothness in the tranny and clutch makes for a user-friendly platform.”

Sitting on the Honda feels familiar, as the ergonomics are exactly the same as years previous. Although the bike doesn’t look as small with the new facelift, it still feels compact. Even with its tighter proportions, most of our testers had no issue with the comfort of the CBR. In fact, it rated second in both the rider interface and comfort categories. The only complaint came from my less than flexible, motocross-damaged legs and knees, which took issue with the short distance from the very flat seat to the tallish footpegs.

Our second woman test pilot, Lori Dell, disagreed with my view on the Honda’s ergos. “I think the CBR is the best commuter bike out of the bunch,” states Lori. “It’s a good liter bike starter; it has simple well-mannered comfort.”

One area where the Honda could have done better in the rankings was the instrumentation area. It’s got new gauges, but it somehow finished mid-pack. The new LCD screen is easy to read and conveys more information than before with a gear position indicator. However, the monochromatic black on grey/white display failed to wow our crew in comparison to some of the flashier units in this shootout. The five-level shift light is a nice touch and easy to see when looking down the road.

The biggest story with the Honda for 2012 is the new suspension on both ends. Up front a pair of 43mm Big Piston Forks (BPF) keep the front in contact with the pavement with a confident but slightly muted feel. This gives the rider just the right amount of information on grip and terrain without overloading the senses with every bit of detail of the asphalt. Controlling the motion at the rear is a shock that Honda and Showa developed jointly to eliminate the lack of feeling during the split-second when the Pro-Link transitions from push to pull. The dampening force remains constant no matter the position or movement of the shock, thereby increasing the traction of the rear wheel. On the street it’s hard to tell if it makes a huge difference, but the rear end is planted and stable no matter the situation just as it always has been with previous years.

“The suspension on the Honda makes for a stable platform,” claims Ernie. “And that stable feeling builds confidence for the rider.”

All of our test riders rate the Honda as the easiest motorcycle to ride in the curves at most speeds, but the BMW and Aprilia are the sharper knives in the drawer. Perhaps because it is so easy to ride, the Honda was rated second in the handling scores. Hustling through corners is nearly effortless and gets easier when you really crank up the pace.

Honda managed to improve the CBR1000RR, a tough task to accomplish without a whole new bike, but it paid off with another second place finish. With so many unique machines in this class, it was hard for the Honda to seperate itself from the pack at times. It all boils down to this – the CBR is easy to ride, almost to a fault. It’s forgettable as soon as you get off it because it didn’t either wow or scare the heck out of you. It’s a wallflower, vanilla and yet perfect at times. Most important, it’s one damn fine motorcycle, and if Honda could find a way to give the CBR1000RR some more personality, it might just reign supreme.